Saturday, December 3, 2022

“There Is No Guide Book To Grief” How Are You Today… Amanda McConchie on Experiencing Two Stillbirths in 18 Months

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Amanda McConchie, the founder of The Business of Influence PR company, has been through an imaginably difficult 18 months with the loss of two babies – Henry, who was a stillbirth at five months, and Rose, who was a stillbirth at seven months. Splitting their time between Asia and New Zealand, Amanda and her husband Andrew are back in New Zealand to reconnect with family and also hold a memorial for their little girl at the same beach where they sprinkled Henry’s ashes last year. Amanda talks to Capsule about coping during loss after loss, why Instagram helped her tell the story of her babies and the loneliness of grief.

How are you today?
I’m actually okay today. I’ve had bad days over the last week, but I’ve got a girls’ day out today with my mum and my sister and my little niece to have high tea and a spot of shopping and then I’m going to meet my husband in the Coromandel for another week of R’n’R. We’re going to be in Kuaotunu ­­­– there’s not much reception, which is nice. I’m definitely taking a lot of time, this time. We’re back in New Zealand for a reset. I’ve taken all of this month off work, which has worked out well with my clients, who are very understanding. We were getting prepped for a pre-term delivery, I was wrapping up all the work I could. So even though it’s such a sad circumstance, it happened at the right time – now we can have some time to heal. That’s not something that many women or men get the privilege to have after something like this.

There are so many elements that are unfair in this situation but I do think the expectation for parents to ‘go back to normal’, in terms of work, would be extremely difficult.
Even though the Bereavement Bill has been passed for parents who have lost babies, it’s still not enough. The grief… I guess there is no guide book to grief, is there? it’s your own personal journey. Last year, when we lost our first bubba at five months, I found that the grief came in different stages over a period of months. At the start, I was really numb, then I was absolutely heartbroken and then it was anger. You know, the stages of grief… then there’s acceptance and then you slowly start to feel stronger.

This time around, I don’t know if it’s because it’s still very raw from our first loss, so that is compounded, but then on top of Covid-19 and getting home, all that stress sort of delays the grief, because you’re in flight or fight mode.

You must be very tired.
I am. I am very tired and I’ve had to really learn to slow down and listen to my body over the years. I’m 32 and I’ve had a history of mental health issues. It runs in my family. I’ve had depression and more recently anxiety. I was diagnosed with depression when I was 21 and put on fluoxetine. I spoke to my GP a lot because – even though he was a family doctor, he had a real passion for mental health and wellness, so he was great to talk to. I saw him fortnightly as well as taking the medicine.

But it was something – and he told me this, but I thought I knew better… I would start feeling better and I would stop taking the pills. And then I would get a hard reality wake-up call when I would start spiralling again. It’s taken about five instances where I’ve had to say to myself: ‘You can’t just stop, you can’t go cold turkey, you have to wean yourself off.’ It’s taken me about 10 years to realise that’s probably going to be something I’ve had to take for the rest of my life. It’s never been a problem with it comes to friends and family – no-one’s ever gone away from me because of it. But it definitely reared its ugly head again for me last year and this year as well.

A photo of darling Rose in her dad’s arms

You mentioned your friends and family there and I wanted to know – when it comes to talking about your two babies, what have you learned about how to have those conversations with people?
Probably the reason I’ve been so open about it is that it’s helped being overseas in Japan – it was a curse and a blessing, I guess. Being overseas meant that I haven’t had to face people right away, I haven’t had people see me at my worst. It’s taken away that fear of facing people. So as a substitute, I’ve used Instagram as a tool because you can say what you want to say but you can also hide behind it, you can then switch off and do what you need to do. Whether that’s sleep, cry, go for a walk. It’s also been a good way for people to know ‘Okay, shit, they’re going through a hard time at the moment, this is how we can help or be understanding or just be aware.’ It’s made it easier for people to process – they know what’s going on and the channels are open. Because I’ve shared that information, I’ve invited people in and they can ask me questions, and not worry they’re going to upset me.

I think it allows people to meet you where you’re at, absolutely. In some of the other stories we’ve run for Baby Loss Awareness Week, other mothers who have lost babies have said the best thing people can do is talk about it. I don’t know if it’s a Western thing or a New Zealand thing but with situations around loss, there can be this knee-jerk reaction of ‘don’t mention it at all because you’ll just upset the person.’ But really, all you’re doing in that situation is just leaving a person alone with their pain.
Totally, it becomes a sense of walking around on eggshells. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing because my parents always raised my sister and I to be honest about how we were feeling, and that it was okay to not be okay. But on the other hand, there are definitely family members who just don’t acknowledge anything. I think it’s probably easier to just not talk about it – but it’s so detrimental… I remember when you approached me [after Rose died], you said ‘I don’t know what to say and I know that that’s a cop-out.’ And I didn’t think that for a second. You reached out and you kept in touch and even though we’d never met, I felt your love. Whereas I haven’t got that ever from, like, some family members.

Alice and I have a very good friend whose first daughter was stillbirth, full term, and she was the first person I’d known who had gone through this. I remember writing her a card, because I was so sad but also because, initially, I was too afraid to engage with her directly because I just didn’t know what to say. But after a couple of weeks, I finally, properly got in touch after I’d read advice on what to do in this situation – and realised I’d basically done the opposite. But she was so open and generous with having a conversation, it helped us start talking about it.
It’s hard – grief is such a personal experience that you don’t even understand it yourself, so you don’t expect others to understand it either. At the end of the day, it’s just knowing that people are thinking of you. I had coffee with a friend the other day – and I was having a really shitty day, so I ended up bursting into tears in front of her, saying ‘I just don’t think like any of the girls are thinking of me anymore.’ And she said, ‘they actually are, they just feel guilty because they have something you don’t – and they just don’t know what to say.’ And I was just upset, saying ‘just sending a message that says I don’t know what to say but love you, that would mean the world.’ Not hearing from people – you just feel that it means they’re not thinking about you, and that probably something I need to just get out of my head. “Yes, people are thinking about you – you don’t need to have that validation all the time.” But people do still need to check in with you, particularly with loved ones. We all have a responsibility to look after each other. It’s hard seeing the ones that you always thought we’re going to be there for you run a mile. But then there are other people… I’ve developed some really lovely friendships off our first loss, last year. Just focus on the people that are there for you – don’t stress about the ones that have disappeared. A friend said to me the other day – friends are for a reason, a season or a lifetime. And I really needed to hear that.

Amanda and Andrew had imprints made of both their babies’ feet

I would imagine that a lot of this time is about allowing yourself space when it’s a bad day, as well.
Absolutely – and people understand. I had to reschedule a dinner because I’d had a really bad day and I said ‘look, I’ve had a really bad day – can we reschedule this?” and they were like “of course, it’s no problem.” But if people don’t know what’s going on with you, how can they be understanding? It sounds simple – and I know it’s not – but it’s just about being honest and open about where you’re at and how you are. It just takes that pressure off trying to hide and be strong for other people – you can just be your real safe at that time.

You recently held a memorial for Rose – was it at the same place where you had Henry’s last year?
It was at the same place – at Kuaotunu, at Andrew’s family bach. We have a lot of lovely memories there – it belonged to his grandparents, who Andrew was very close to them. We lost our dog last year, this beautiful dog we had right throughout our twenties; he was our first baby. We scattered him at the northern end of the beach. And then Henry died, and we thought why don’t we scatter him on the same beach, where we did with his big, hairy brother. So we did it in the middle part of the beach. And this time we thought, ‘Oh shit, we’re running out of beach…’ so for Rose, it was at the southern point. Last year, we scattered Henry’s ashes and some rose petals and this time, I got their footprints printed out onto paper and put them on the site where we said goodbye to Rose. A friend of ours tried to organise a memorial seat but he couldn’t get it through the council, but we might have another shot at it. That’s the long-term plan.

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